Moral anaesthesia


Cost cutting at his clinics has cost wealthy Nevada-based physician Dipak Desai his reputation.

More than 30 years ago, a young Indian doctor called Dipak Desai landed in New York looking for fame and fortune. Since then he has found fortune. On September 27, 2009, he will have national, if not international, fame, though not the way he might have wanted it.

On that day Desai will go on trial for being the perpetrator of what is said to be the biggest hepatitis scare in the US. Desai’s clinic in the Las Vegas region, the Endoscopy Centre, as well as a string of smaller clinics he owned in South Nevada, have been accused of re-using syringes while administering anaesthesia to some 40,000 patients. Seven of them have contacted the deadly hepatitis C, of which one has since died. Nevada medical authorities are now frantically trying to contact the other patients to urge them to test for hepatitis C, hepatitis B and HIV. The Endoscopy Centre has been closed down, though Desai still possesses his practising licence.

The Desai case rocked the gambling state. The number of the potentially affected notwithstanding, Desai is also one of the most prominent physicians in Nevada. A friend of the governor Jim Gibbons, he had served on Gibbons's health care transition team before the latter took office in January 2007. Gibbon, in turn, appointed Desai to important posts, including the committee looking into medical malpractices. Desai is also behind a successful campaign that caps a limit of US$350,000 on what patients can claim from doctors in Nevada.

According to a Las Vegas city official, Desai chose to "mortally hazard his patients for profit" by operating his endoscopy clinic fraught with cost-cutting sloppiness, of which re-using syringes is only one of them.

Endoscopy, which means “looking inside”, is a minimally invasive procedure to assess the interior surface of an organ by inserting a tube into the body. Patients are often given anaesthetics to offset the discomfort caused by the procedure.

The facts that syringes cost US 10 cents each on bulk purchase, and that the Desai family live in a US$3.4-million luxurious house with a swimming pool, a spa and multiple fire places, have angered many people. And so has news that Desai has been trying to ship two of his Mercedes-Benz cars to Dubai, suggesting he might want to skip the country.

Desai, in his 50s, has been practising medicine in Nevada for 28 years. He is an alumnus of Gujarat University and later did his medical residency at the Catholic Medical Centre in New York. He has donated generously to politicians of both Democrat and Republican parties.

There are more than 3 million South Asians – Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans – in the US. One full per cent of them, some 35,000, are physicians. As a rule, Indians in the US are better off than the average American but have problems being accepted into the larger society.

Six years ago, a Pakistani doctor, Javed, was accused of giving 10 cancer patients hepatitis C in Nebraska by reusing hypodermic needles. Javed has fled to Pakistan and has not been heard from since. The case has sown doubt over the integrity of South Asian doctors. With the Desai case now grabbing national limelight, assimilation of South Asians in America will be even more difficult.



First Published: 
July 2008


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